Those Darned Chemicals, Part II: What is Really Going On Here?

Before I continue with my alphabetical list of the thirty-five synthetic food additives that the USDA currently allows food producers to include in products that are granted the USDA Certified Organic label, I want to talk about how I view food additives in general.

Food additives are a necessity for most processed foods. Some of them are harmless compounds which act as anti-oxidants, which help extend the shelf life of the food item. Some are actively beneficial to the functioning of the human body and are added to enrich the nutrient value of the product: vitamins and minerals fall into this category. Others are used as flavor enhancers, thickeners or leaveners, which improve the products taste, mouthfeel and texture; these products have their counterparts in our own kitchens in the form of sugars, salt and spices, cornstarch or roux and yeast, baking powder and baking soda.

Some food additives I take umbrage with, and avoid: high fructose corn syrup is one of them, and transfats in the form of partially or fully hydrogenated vegetable oils is another. The studies I have read on these additives which appear in nearly non-organic processed food item in American grocery store shelves, have made me suspect that these ingredients are injurious to my health and the health of others, and so I refuse to eat food which contains them.

So, I do understand why consumers might be skeptical about the role of food additives in processed food, as I myself am not a great consumer of processed foods for the very reason that I believe that they contain ingredients which may be harmful. However, it seems more sensible to me to simply avoid most processed foods entirely than to find fault with the food additives which are necessary in order to create palatability, leaven the product, enhances its nutrative value and lenthen its shelf life.

In researching this current conflagration over the use of synthetic chemicals in the production of processed foods which are certified as organic by the USDA, I have found among that list of additives many items which are used for reasonable purposes, which are not harmful to health, and some in fact, which are health-enhancing.

How, for example, can anyone object to vitamins and minerals being added to a product?

This makes me wonder how many people are actually aware of what they are protesting about. I do hate to sound like I am coming down on the side of the USDA (which I have reason to mistrust for their handling of the BSE crisis) and the big food corporations (whom I mistrust for many reasons) , but I see a distinct dearth of actual information available to consumers from the Organic Consumer Association regarding this list of additives. Mind you, I had to search diligently on the USDA website to get the list, but I -did- find it there, with all the information I needed to do further research on the topic myself.

I do not like outright lies; but I find half-truths even more odious and insidious.

Spin is ugly no matter who is doing the spinning.

I have been receiving information and calls to action from any number of different outlets regarding these additives, asking me to communicate with my congresscritters and email the USDA and all sorts of very responsible, civic-minded, good voter citizen actions. However, none of the information that has been sent me in this very active campaign sponsored by the OCA has contained the whole truth of what exactly it is that I am supposed to be protesting.

This worries me.

It seems to me that if the OCA were truly concerned with what people put into their mouths, then they would give out as much information as possible on these additives and let people make up their own minds about it. They would perhaps urge people to boycott brands that utilized these additives, and specifically state scientific research which concluded that these additives were detrimental to health.

But it seems to me that there is another agenda here. It looks as if the OCA is stirring up people’s mistrust of government agencies (a mistrust which is not always unreasonable–look at FEMA’s recent laughable performance in emergency managment) and sometimes misguided fears regarding all things chemical, synthetic and “unnatural.” They seem to want people to be fearful, in order to accomplish a goal–one best articulated by Ronnie Cummins, the
national director for the OCA, who voices fears that the National Organic Standards Board (the independant advisory committee which drafted the rules governing what is and is not considered to be organic for the USDA, and which decides what additives are permissible) may be dismantled and abolished.

In the Alternet article I posted yesterday, he is quoted as saying that the NOSB is “the primary thing that stands between us and the corporate agribusiness takeover of the organics industry.” (Italics mine.)

I believe in that phrase, he has shown the OCA’s agenda; they wish to block large corporations from participating in the organic food marketplace.

One way to do that is to attack the way in which they manufacture food. Over and over, spokespersons for the Organic Trade Association have said that these food additives, some of which are labelled as synthetic, but which are derived from natural sources, allow the food companies to produce organic processed food to fulfil consumer demands for same, at as low a price as possible. Alternative ingredients, which fall under the definition of “natural,” are more expensive, and would drive the cost of producing these foods up.

And to whom would that rise in price fall?

The consumers, of course.

And people already complain about how expensive organic foods are.

I’ll leave my ruminations with that little fact for the readers to chew on while I return to my annotated list of food additives.

Annotated List of Allowable Food Additives:

Calcium phosphates (di-, mono- and tri-) is a mineral salt found in teeth and bones, and is often found as naturally occurring rock in various Middle Eastern countries. As a food additive it is used as a leavening agent, oxidizing agent, yeast food, nutritional supplement, anti-caking ingredient, and dough conditioner. Dough conditioners are ingredients used to help make yeast doughs rise higher and lighter–they contain carbohydrate yeast foods which help the yeast multiply more rapidly and produce more carbon dioxide, and they are particularly useful to make whole grain breads rise up light and airy as opposed to heavy and leaden. Dough conditioners often contain calcium and oxidizing agents, which helps strengthen the dough. Dough conditioners are often used by commercial bakeries in Europe and are becoming more commonly accepted in American bakeries; it is sold to American home bakers under the name of Lora Brody, a well-known cooking instructor. (I have a couple of cans of it myself and have used it frequently.)

A naturally occurring gas, carbon dioxide is part of the Earth’s atmosphere, and is used in food production to add bubbles to beverages, (a process called strangely enough, carbonation) and as a packing gas. It is utilized in packing fresh produce in sealed environments; in keeping out the oxygen, it limits the potential for oxidization, wilting and decomposition of such fragile produce as salad greens. There are two listings for carbon dioxide in the NOSB database–one for natural carbon dioxide and another for synthesized version; chemically, the two are identical in form and function, and chemically speaking, are indistinguishable.

Chlorine is used in the food industry as a bleaching agent for flour, and oxidizing agent and as a preservative, however, the NOSB allows its use in USDA Certified Organic products only as a disinfectant for food processing equipment, and only if residual chlorine levels on the equipment do not exceed the maximum residual disinfectant limit under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Chlorine is present in all public municipal drinking water systems where it is used as an anti-microbial agent.

Ethylene has been covered in my first post on this subject, but I will reiterate that it is a gaseous plant hormone that is emitted by various fruits and vegetables as a natural part of the fruit-ripening process and is used to ripen fruits while they are in storage. Bananas will not ripen off the tree without application of ethylene gas; ethylene that is produced naturally by a fruit, or in a laboratory, are chemically indistinguishable.

Glycerine is a naturally occurring substance in the human body, where it is known as glycerol; it is an important component of triglycerides, a component of body fat. When body fat is burned as fuel, glycerol is released into the bloodstream; it is then converted into glucose by liver and is burned for energy. In food products, it is most often used as binder, a humectant (an agent which is helps retain moisture) and as a solvent. Glycerine can be produced from animal fat or vegetable oils, and is the by-product of saponification, which is the reaction between a base and a fat which produces soap. It is also a by-product of the creation of biodiesel: a form of fuel that is derived from vegetable oils and is used as an alternative to petrochemicals.

Hydrogen peroxide is commonly used as a hair bleach and in low concentrations in medical applications such as disinfection, wound cleaning and debriding, and as a household cleaner. In food production, it is used as preservative, though I cannot find any information on exactly how it functions chemically in that capacity. Although sufficient quantities of food-grade (35%) hydrogen peroxide can be fatal when ingested, it is sometimes used in alternative medicine to treat various health issues. NOSB has allowed the use of hydrogen peroxide without restriction in the production of USDA Certified Organic foods.

That is it for today. Tomorrow, look for another episode of “Those Darned Chemicals,” when you will hear Zak say, “I thought iron was supposed to be good for you!”

And then you will hear Barbara say, “Why didn’t I study my chemistry more diligently?” as she tears her hair out by the roots.

And then Morganna will say, “Are you still writing about those darned chemicals Mom? When’s dinner?”

9 Comments

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  1. This is a great series, Barbara. Write on, oh wise one!! (Now I feel compelled to do a little research to find out how much of this has trickled over to what is allowed in Canadian foods….)

    But more importantly, when IS dinner?? And what are we having?

    -Ehehehehelizabeth

    Comment by ejm — October 5, 2005 #

  2. Ai yai yai!!! The navigation at Health Canada – Food and Nutrition is a major nightmare!!

    I hope you don’t mind the following excerpt from http://canadagazette.gc.ca/partI/2001/20011103/html/notice-e.html#i2

    Provision currently exists in the Food and Drug Regulations for the use of hydrogen peroxide as a food additive for a number of purposes. The permitted areas of use and their respective maximum levels listed are:

    — in brewers’ mash as a clarification aid at a maximum level of use of 135 parts per million (p.p.m.);

    — in starch as a starch modifying agent at a maximum level of use consistent with good manufacturing practice; and

    — in liquid whey destined for the manufacture of dried whey products at a maximum level of use of 100 p.p.m., to decolourize and maintain pH.

    Health Canada has received a submission for the use of hydrogen peroxide as a bleaching agent in the production of oat hull fibre at a maximum level of use consistent with good manufacturing practice. Evaluation of available data supports the safety and effectiveness of this use of hydrogen peroxide.

    The use of hydrogen peroxide will benefit both the Canadian consumers and industry by permitting the production of a better quality oat hull fibre that may be used as an ingredient in a variety of food products.

    Therefore, it is the intention of Health Canada to recommend that the Food and Drug Regulations be amended to permit the use of hydrogen peroxide as a bleaching agent in the production of oat hull fibre at a maximum level of use consistent with good manufacturing practice.

    [...]

    October 23, 2001

    Comment by ejm — October 5, 2005 #

  3. Hello, Elizabeth!

    Thank you for your kind words! No worries, I will keep writing until I have gone through the entire list, with essays to go along with it.

    Tonight’s dinner will be Indian food–Morganna wants to learn how to make kofta, and we will make some sort of aloo dish–possibly aloo methi, and some saag made with collard greens and kale.

    Thank you for the quote about hydrogen peroxide–I had found a couple of mentions here and there as to what it was used for, but none of them went into detail. Thank you–I may edit my post to include your information after dinner!

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — October 5, 2005 #

  4. Thank you for the series! As an even more rabid label reader than I was prior to the discovery of my corn allergy, I am always searching for more information on what things are and why they are in my food.

    Comment by Eva — October 5, 2005 #

  5. You are welcome, Eva–welcome to my blog and thank you for commenting.

    As I do this research, I am finding a lot of good resources for consumers interested in knowing what exactly is in the processed foods they eat, and I hope that my little effort can be of help to others.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — October 6, 2005 #

  6. Glad that the hydrogen peroxide thing was useful. There may well be more things about the various additives at the Health Canada site (if you can find your way through it – who IS their webmaster, I wonder, and are my taxes really paying that person’s salary?)

    Mmmmm Indian food! Although, I’ve never been a fan of kofta. My husband adores it and always orders it at our favourite Indian restaurant. But saag anything works for me! Saag paneer…. mmmmmmmmm

    -Elizabeth

    Comment by ejm — October 6, 2005 #

  7. Hello, Elizabeth!

    Not like kofta? Oh, dear!

    Maybe you would like the ones we made–saag kofta. The best of both worlds! I used collards for the saag, though and Zak wasn’t too sure of them. I think that if I had done palak kofta instead, he would have been happier.

    But Morganna and her friends at school and I all liked it–so maybe Zak is the werid one!

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — October 7, 2005 #

  8. Oh how embarrassing. I’m not really a finicky eater – really I’m not. But I’m afraid that I might not be a great fan of your saag kofta either – because I’ve never been a fan of lamb. (This is another thing that I have tried to like on many occasions. My husband absolutely adores lamb…)

    I confess that I’ve only ever seen vegetable kofta; I think the kofta at our favourite Indian restaurant is made with besan (chickpea flour). But the description of your saag kafta that you made with your daughter sounds fantastic. Much much more appetizing than the besan kofta. And even though few Indians would ever use ground pork, I would love to try it made that way.

    -Elizabeth

    Comment by ejm — October 7, 2005 #

  9. Vegetable kofta are a favorite of mine, but only if they have been kneaded minimally so that they are light inside. They are hard to make; my favorites have ground up chiles, carrots and mashed up peas in them, with lots of spices and cilantro. Then, they are bound by the besan flour and shaped very gently into eggs, then fried, then cooked in the curry sauce.

    It is hard to make them so that they are not tough. Knead a bit too hard or pack the mixture together too hard and then they become chewy. But the light ones have an amazing texture and flavor. I adore them.

    You could use ground beef or chicken instead, Elizabeth–that would be good. Ground pork would work, especially if you used a Goanese sauce with it–what about kofta vindaloo? ;-)

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — October 7, 2005 #

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